Environmental risks of fracking - Environmental Audit Contents

3  Environmental risks

29. The Committee received much evidence on the environmental risks of fracking, relating to:

·  Groundwater quality

·  Waste

·  Water supplies

·  Air emissions and health

·  Habitats and biodiversity

·  Geological integrity

·  Noise and disruption

We cover each of these below.

30. The evidence from a range of government bodies and independent scientific institutions is generally in agreement that fracking can proceed in the UK safely and without harm to the environment provided proper environmental safeguards are introduced and adhered to. However, uncertainties remain because of the experience in the United States and the fledgling state of the industry in the UK, meaning that the perception that fracking is inherently risky prevails.

Groundwater quality

31. Hydraulic fracturing activities pump fracking fluid—water, sand and chemicals—under pressure into a deep well.[64] When the well is depressurised, a proportion of the fracking fluid is returned to the surface as flowback alongside naturally occurring contaminants mobilised by the fracturing process. There is a risk to groundwater through the escape of fracking or flowback fluids, and a risk of polluting surface water or the ground from storage of these fluids above ground.

32. It is critical that groundwater is protected from contamination. The Environment Agency's Groundwater protection: Principles and practice state that damage to groundwater may be irreversible, and that the precautionary principle must be followed.[65] Members of the public are clearly concerned about the risks to groundwater from fracking, many looking to the "track record of fracking elsewhere in the world".[66] The Frack Free Balcombe Resident's Association raised concerns that "wells or fractures intersecting with natural faults could easily become conduits for leaking gases and liquids" in Britain's highly faulted geology.[67] ENDS' UK shale gas and the environment reported the make-up of flowback fluid at one of Cuadrilla's sites:

    At Cuadrilla's Preese Hall site near Blackpool, the fluid was some three-times saltier than sea water and had up to 179 micrograms of lead per litre against a 10µg/l drinking water standard. It had chromium at up to 222µg/l, more than four-times the drinking water standard.[68]

33. British Geological Survey highlighted the recent publication of 3D maps showing the relationship of potential shale gas source rocks and the overlying principal aquifers in the UK, considering it "an important first step" but suggesting that further work is required to adequately assess groundwater vulnerability. They told us:

    The difficulty lies in the fact that below c.200m there is very little information and data on the hydrogeological properties and potential for movement of pollutants through rocks below this depth.[69]

The risks to groundwater must be eliminated but, they added, "there is, as yet, very limited experience of this type of industrial activity in the UK to adequately characterise and quantify the risks."[70] Dr Tony Grayling from the Environment Agency told us the regulatory "regime that we currently have is sufficient," and sufficiently incorporates the precautionary principle.[71] SaFE believed however that "the Government is putting people and the environment at significant risk" because it is not applying the precautionary principle.[72]

34. In a number of areas, potential oil and gas reserves are located beneath principal aquifers used for water supply in the UK and the concern is that wells passing through these aquifers provide a "potential pathway for migration of pollutants" from the fracking and flowback fluids.[73] Evidence from conventional hydrocarbon fields shows that hydraulic fracturing due to injection of fluids can, in exceptional circumstances, lead to fracture propagation to the surface or near-surface, if it takes place at relatively shallow depths.[74] British Geological Survey told us that "47% of [principal aquifers] are underlain by shales/clays that are potentially prospective for gas or oil."[75] Dr Tony Grayling told us:

    In relation to source protection zones, which are the zones where there are abstraction boreholes for drinking water, there is a prohibition by the Environment Agency on drilling in those areas. They are actually defined by pollution travel times rather than by metres … Our permitting system is such that we will only permit an activity if we are satisfied that there is no significant risk of harm to the water environment or water resources. There is an absolute prohibition in protection zones 1. Outside protection zones 1, we would take a very rigorous case-by-case assessment.[76]

The Environment Agency maintained that the use of 'hazardous substances' for any activity, including hydraulic fracturing, would not be permitted where they would or might enter groundwater and cause pollution.[77]

35. Despite this assurance, concerns remain. Frack Off Fife told us:

    It is without doubt that each of these [underground extraction] processes pose a threat to our water supplies. Why the Government need to re-query this is unnecessary as there's an abundance of scientific evidence to support the facts that the chemicals used in the drilling and fracturing processes, are very dangerous in many aspects and once the water supply is contaminated, it cannot be un-contaminated. Water's natural ability to permeate rock means the contaminated waters will eventually find clean/natural/ground waters and thus, contaminate them ... and put at risk the environment around it.[78]

Greenpeace referred to the concerns of UK medical health campaign group Medact that fracking is an inherently risky activity with associated pollutants including "carcinogens, mutagens, teratogens, respiratory irritants and neurological, endocrine and haematological disrupters/toxins" and "industrial-scale fracking would pose unacceptable risks to the health and well-being of local residents."[79] Water UK research has identified that "a small number of the substances present [in fracturing fluids] are likely to be classified as hazardous under EU and UK regulations."[80]

36. Paul Mobbs believed that flowback fluid is a greater risk than the original fracking fluid, due to the mobilisation of deep radioactive and other naturally occurring materials by the fracturing process, mixing with the fracking fluid.[81] The Researching Fracking In Europe consortium informed us that their "research has found that even in the 'worst case scenario', flux in the radioactivity of flowback fluid would not exceed the annual exposure limit set by the UK Environment Agency."[82] The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management considered the risks of contamination from mobilisation of methane in groundwater to be generally low in the UK.[83] British Geological Survey are currently researching the "temporal variation in methane in groundwater" and are looking to finish the work and develop a baseline by March 2015.[84]

37. Dr David Lowry also raised a concern about endocrine disruptors, noting findings of "higher levels of hormone disrupting activity in water located near fracking wells than in areas without drilling" in the United States.[85] In a letter to Dr Lowry the Environment Agency stated that it was "aware of the use of endocrine disrupters in some parts of the USA and the potential link to shale gas fracking there … The Environment Agency will not authorise the use of substances hazardous to groundwater in hydraulic fracturing."[86]

38. The majority of written submissions we received cited well integrity as the key to preventing pollution from fracking operations.[87] Lord Smith believed it was "so crucial for protection in terms of groundwater, waste fluids and impact on the environment."[88] UK Onshore Oil and Gas highlighted that there would be multiple physical barriers of casing and cement and the natural impermeable geology layers as protection for the well, and integrity testing prior to the commencement of fracturing activities.[89] However, we heard that the only fracking well drilled so far in the UK, at Preese Hall near Blackpool, suffered well integrity issues and that crucial tests had not been carried out.[90] Countryside Alliance calculated that the "probability of an individual well blowing out or leaking is relatively low (typically around 1 in 5000 for onshore wells)" but that "the large number of wells that need to be drilled increases the chance of such an event happening."[91] Friends of the Earth directed us to evidence from the United States that "found failure rates in newly-drilled shale gas wells in Pennsylvania to be between 6.9% and 8.9%".[92]

39. Caroline Raffan told us her "greatest worry is that water contamination will get worse over time as wells develop concrete failures, and the methane escapes into the water table and also into the environment."[93] There is concern that underground pollution events might not be identified before, or may happen after, wells are abandoned. The National Physical Laboratory told us that "there are no monitoring requirements for abandoned wells."[94] Mark Ellis-Jones from the Environment Agency assured us, however, that:

    As long as the operator is holding the permits and is responsible for the site, at any time before, during or after operations we have the powers to take enforcement action if there was a pollution event of any kind or a breach of permit … Particularly after the sites have been operated and then decommissioned, we would not allow the operators to surrender their permits until such a time as we felt that the sites had been restored to a satisfactory environmental condition or there was no long-term risk to the environment …

    Under the Environmental Liability Directive, we can hold companies to account for any environmental damage, even after they have surrendered their permit. So we can take enforcement action even after permit surrender and would do so …

    The conditions in the permit are indefinite, so we have essentially, under the Environmental Permitting Regulations, in theory indefinite powers to not accept an operator surrendering its permit to us if we think there is an ongoing risk. What we would have to do is take every site on a case-by-case basis, depending on the extent of operations, how long the operations have been lasting for, and that will vary.[95]

40. Water UK identified a "risk from … surface spillages of chemicals and other materials"[96] and the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management pointed out that "any negligence associated with storage, transportation and operational spills represent the greatest threats to surface water, as well as to groundwater."[97] The Environment Agency told us:

    To protect surface and groundwater from potential spills and leaks from onsite equipment and infrastructure, sites must be constructed with an impermeable membrane; storage tanks must have bunds (containment); and any clean surface water run-off from the site would need a water discharge consent before being released into the environment.[98]

However, many witnesses raised concerns about what they saw as a lack of satisfactory solutions for safe 'containment'.[99]


41. Typical wastes arising from hydraulic fracturing include drill cuttings, waste drilling muds, waste flowback fluids, waste gases, and 'fugitive emissions'. The Institution of Civil Engineers estimate that a single well might produce between 7,500 to 18,750m3 of waste water and 13,400 to 33,500 tonnes of CO2 annually.[100] Both volume and content raise concerns.

42. One of these concerns is about the accumulation of naturally occurring radioactive materials, minerals and salts in flowback fluid and drilling muds. UK Onshore Oil and Gas told us that these wastes are "stored within secondary containment on site."[101] The Government told us "a permit for the management of extractive waste (mining waste) is always required" and commercial operators must submit a waste management plan to the Environment Agency detailing how wastes on site will be minimised and managed safely.[102] Dr Tony Grayling told us that in practice all flowback would need to be controlled under the permitting regimes:

    Drilling muds, if they are oil-based drilling muds, are classified as hazardous and therefore if they are included in any waste products, the waste materials are themselves hazardous. In terms of waste fracking fluid, it is not automatically a hazardous material, not least because we do not allow the inclusion of substances in fracking fluid that we would deem to be hazardous to groundwater. But it is likely that waste fracking fluids will contain a sufficient but low level of naturally occurring radioactive materials that would invoke the radioactive substances regulations and therefore require permitting on that front, and require that those waste fracking fluids are disposed of at an appropriately licensed wastewater treatment facility. [103]

The Environment Agency added that:

    Any hydraulic fracturing fluid left underground at the end of the operation will also be considered an extractive waste. Operators will need to ensure that any waste fluid left underground stays within the target formation and cannot move to geological layers above. They will do this by ensuring that the fractures stay in the shale beds and that the well bore is properly decommissioned.[104]

43. Friends of the Earth warned that "waste disposal remains problematic for fracking companies."[105] Water UK advised that "elevated salinity presents a challenge for wastewater treatment"[106] and that "It is unlikely that the standard wastewater treatment works will be able to manage waste water from unconventional oil and gas."[107] They reported however that treatment can be undertaken to recycle wastewaters for re-use in further hydraulic fracturing.[108] The Institution of Civil Engineers confirmed that "onsite water treatment technologies exist (e.g. thermal distillation or reverse osmosis filtration), but this is not yet widely practiced."[109] Dr Tony Grayling from the Environment Agency told us:

    The background levels of naturally occurring radioactive materials are relatively low but we expect them to cross the threshold in which they will come into regulation. We consider that we do have the capacity in terms of the waste treatment facilities to deal with that waste in the current stage of development that the industry is at. This is a permittable activity so they will have a permit under our radioactive substances regulations that require that waste be managed in very specific ways to make sure that it is dealt with on site in bunded tanks, for example, and then disposed of at a properly licensed facility. So it is a risk that can be managed. [110]

There are concerns, however, that if the industry scales up the required waste treatment capacity may not be available.[111]

44. Despite assurances from the Environment Agency that use of 'hazardous substances' for fracking would not be permitted where they could enter groundwater and cause pollution,[112] Frack Free Balcombe Resident's Association raised a concern that the access rights provision in the Infrastructure Bill (paragraph 7) effectively allows "any substance to be injected into and left in the lateral wells … drilled under our property."[113]

Water supplies

45. Fracking itself requires considerable quantities of water and could pose localised risks to water supplies if catchments were over-abstracted or water supplies were stressed already. Commercial operators can source water for hydraulic fracturing either directly from surface water or groundwater, or from the local mains water supply. The Institution of Civil Engineers estimated that 10,000 to 25,000m3 of water would be required for each well.[114] The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management told us that whilst the volume of water used in hydraulic fracturing for shale gas viewed in isolation appears large, when set in the context of national or regional water supply it is comparable with other industries.[115] UK Onshore Oil and Gas believed that "fears of water shortages arising from shale gas development have been overstated."[116]

46. We heard from the Environment Agency that they expect commercial operators to source their water from the water companies.[117] Water UK told us:

    Water availability is likely to depend on local conditions and local distribution infrastructure. The regions where water resources are less likely to be available are in southeast England, and the southwest Midlands[118] …

    It is essential to involve [water] companies as much and as early as possible, so that companies can plan both for potential extra demand (in water-stressed areas such as the South East, this is crucial) and to consider solutions for removing untreated waste water safety.[119]

47. We welcome the Memorandum of Understanding between Water UK and UK Onshore Oil and Gas establishing a framework for members of each organisation to engage and cooperate,[120] and the Government's agreement that water companies should be statutory consultees in fracking planning applications.[121]

Air emissions and health

48. During the exploration phase methane is released to test the recoverability of the shale gas. In addition to methane, local air pollutants from the same process can include particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. There is additional potential for local air pollution from haulage associated with the site. The Institution of Civil Engineers estimated that a single well might require between 500 and 1,250 HGV lorry movements.[122]

49. The Environment Agency told the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee that when they consider a permit they look at the contribution the activity will have on overall air quality.[123] In June 2014 Public Health England concluded that the "currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction will be low if the operations are properly run and regulated."[124] Nonetheless, Dr F P Rugman alerted us to a recent study that found "high air concentrations of potentially dangerous chemicals near on-shore fracking sites in the USA," including benzene, formaldehyde, hexane, and hydrogen sulphide.[125] He raised concerns that "the Public Health England Report cites some preliminary short term studies of adverse health impacts of fracking in the USA, but does not address the probable cumulative long-term impact of air emissions such as benzene on the lifetime cancer risks. Another major unknown is how low level, but long-term, exposure from multiple chemicals might affect peoples' health."[126] UK Green MEPs considered that "the health impacts of air pollution will only be exacerbated by fracking and will make it harder for the UK to meet EU air quality standards."[127] They referred to European Commission research in 2012 which stated:

    Emissions from numerous well developments in a local area or wider region could have potentially significant effect on air quality. Emissions from wide scale development of a shale gas reservoir could have a significant effect on ozone levels. Exposure to ozone could have an adverse effect on respiratory health and this is considered to be a risk of potentially high significance.[128]

50. Philip Mitchell has conducted local surveys which, he told us, had led to concerns that "there have been an increase in respiratory symptoms, including acute breathlessness and asthma and that these correlate with the drilling and, predominantly, fracking operations." Mr Mitchell also said Cuadrilla used polyacrylamide which was an irritant to the respiratory system, and glutaraldehyde which was linked to asthma.[129] Dr David Lowry raised the concern of radiation risk from radon gas which might be released during fracking, referring to Public Health England's Review of the Potential Public Health Impacts of Exposure to Chemical and Radioactive Pollutants as a Result of Shale Gas Extraction which concluded that there is "the potential for radon gas to be present in natural gas extracted from UK shale."[130] The Geological Society noted concerns relating to mobilisation of natural uranium but stated "we are not aware of any evidence of harm."[131] No Hot Air believed that "refusing to access local resources of natural gas and oil … avoids the significant and proven positive health impacts of lowering air pollution from … coal generation."[132] We discussed concerns relating to endocrine disruptors above (paragraph 37).

51. The Government told us that "any venting or flaring of gas from a well is regulated by DECC through the Petroleum Exploration Development Licence ... [and] venting is not normally permitted."[133] The Environment Agency informed us that commercial operators require a permit under the Industrial Emissions Directive to undertake flaring of over 10 tonnes a day of waste gases and that "where flaring does occur, we consider the use of fully enclosed flares as Best Available Techniques. We will not allow open flaring or venting, except for safety as a last resort."[134] They told us:

    An air dispersion modelling assessment will be required, to determine the likely impact of flaring the gas on local air quality standards. We will need to be satisfied that the contribution of emissions from the proposed flaring is acceptable in terms of potential environmental and health impacts. The operator will be required to monitor the emissions to air from the flaring activity.[135]

A weakness of the Environment Agency's consideration of 'best available techniques' is that they will take account of costs in the appraisal of permitting applications.[136]

52. Unintentional leaks—'fugitive emissions'—have the same potential consequences as planned flaring. Mark Ellis-Jones told us "from a regulatory point of view, our expectation is full containment. Any industrial process will have fugitive emissions of some kind, but our starting point is the expectation that there is 100% containment."[137] The Environment Agency assured us that fugitive emissions were subject to extractive waste permit conditions[138] and identified methods to prevent unintended gas release:

·  Checking for leaks prior to starting, and during, operations;

·  Increasing pressure of drilling fluids; and

·  Installing physical control equipment forcing the borehole to be shut.[139]

They told us:

    Should elevated levels of methane be detected, we would require the well to be shut and the cause for the increase in levels to be investigated and remedied. The operation will only resume once we are satisfied that the issue has been resolved.[140]

53. We welcome the Government's announcement that the Environment Agency will enforce 'green completions'—the collection and separation of water, sand and gas to prevent escape of gas—as a requirement of environmental permits for shale gas production.[141]

Habitats and biodiversity

54. The direct loss or fragmentation of habitat, noise and vibration, air and water contamination, light and truck movements associated with fracking operations could all have an impact on wildlife. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds estimated that transportation related to fracking activities "equates to between 4,300 and 6,600 truck trips per well pad."[142] They also pointed out that "excess water abstraction could negatively affect aquatic habitats that are important for wildlife."[143] The Woodland Trust raised concerns about "the potential of fracking operations to damage areas of ancient woodland, which are precious, irreplaceable habitats … covering only 2% of the UK."[144]

55. On the other hand, the Geological Society highlighted the example of Perenco's Wytch Farm oil extraction site which, although not subject to fracking, has operated in an area of outstanding natural beauty since the late 1970s.[145] Nevertheless, the Government told us that major development of shale gas extraction in National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and World Heritage Sites would be allowed only in "exceptional circumstances" and when public benefit can be demonstrated.[146] The Prime Minster informed the House of Commons Liaison Committee: "We have not really defined what they would be but, clearly, there is a much higher threshold to be crossed."[147]

56. The same restrictions do not apply to include Sites of Special Scientific Interest, despite the legal protections given to these sites.[148] RSPB told us:

    18% of the UK's Sites of Special Scientific Interest fall within land available under the 14th Licensing Round [for petroleum exploration and development licences], so the impacts on our most precious sites and species could be significant. Any damage to the SSSI network could lead to the UK failing to meet its international commitments for biodiversity.[149]

The Government informed us that development cannot normally occur on Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation and Sites of Special Scientific Interest unless it can be shown there will be no adverse impact on the integrity of the site, and that all public authorities when exercising their functions have a duty to have regard to conserving biodiversity.[150]

Geological integrity

57. Cuadrilla's exploratory drilling operations at Preese Hall near Blackpool were halted in 2011 following two earth tremors linked to their activities, before restrictions were lifted at the end of 2012. The Geological Society reported:

    The maximum magnitude of any seismic event is dependent on the mechanical strength of the rock in which it occurs. The crust in most of the UK is relatively weak, and unable to store sufficient energy for large seismic events. This means that the largest natural earthquake we can expect is likely to be no greater than magnitude 6. However, based on our understanding of the mechanical strength of shale and case studies of fracking operations in the USA, it is extremely unlikely that seismic events induced by fracking will ever reach a magnitude greater than 3 … Earthquakes at a magnitude of 3 are likely to be detectable by few people and are highly unlikely to cause any structural damage at the surface.[151]

The Royal Society & Royal Academy of Engineering also said that "seismicity induced by fracking is likely to be of even smaller magnitude than coal mining related seismicity."[152] IGas Energy told us that seismic activity is a common occurrence in the UK, with the vast majority of events induced naturally. In December 2014 they reported "in the last two months alone there was one tremor bigger (magnitude 2.6) than the largest recorded in Preese Hall (2.3) and four that were very similar in size (2.2, 2.1, 2.0 and 2.0)."[153] However, Campaign to Protect Rural England (Kent) questioned whether Britain's geology is too highly faulted for fracking to be safe.[154]

58. Following the tremors at Preese Hall, DECC introduced new controls to mitigate the risk of seismicity induced by fracking, including prior analysis of seismic risk, systematic monitoring and a 'traffic light' system to halt operations at predefined levels of seismic activity. Dr James Verdon and Professor Michael Kendall told us that the traffic light "thresholds are very conservative", although they suggested that uncertainties related to implementation should be addressed.[155] Dr Tony Grayling from the Environment Agency reported that:

    For any individual site, we and the Department of Energy and Climate Change between us require detailed seismic surveys and detailed hydrogeological surveys as part of an application to undertake any drilling activity or any hydraulic fracturing activity. We would expect that information will come to light through those surveys, but it needs to be done ultimately on a site-by-site basis.[156]

He considered the traffic light system to be adequate for the purpose. It "has not been tested in anger, but the threshold they have set of 0.5 … is very low and I think provides a very strict safeguard." [157]

Noise and disruption

59. The amenity impacts caused by fracking include visual intrusion, loss of land, and noise and vibration from 24 hour operations and associated haulage. INEOS told us:

    Like any development, a shale gas site must demonstrate that it will not lead to unacceptable visual impact, light pollution, noise or congestion if it is to secure planning permission from local councils. And while operating it must prove that it meets the conditions of its planning permission.[158]

UK Onshore Oil and Gas reported:

    The development of onshore oil and gas, like any other industrial activity, will cause an increase in traffic and disruption in some locations, particularly during the periods when wells are drilled or hydraulically stimulated. Planning controls, established by the Minerals Planning Authority will mitigate disturbance along with the demonstration via a traffic management plan how the operator plans to manage routes, traffic safety and amenity of introducing new traffic to an area. The industry's community benefits scheme (paragraph 7) will compensate those communities affected. [159]

60. INEOS believed that "local disruption associated with drilling and fracking is comparable in scale to a building site, and only temporary (typically lasting about six months). After this a site produces discreetly for up to a few decades."[160] However, the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management pointed out that, in the UK, shale gas extraction may be near to large populations, creating a much more noticeable impact on communities and the local environment.[161] Haulage of materials, waste and equipment was a source of concern for Greenpeace, who warned that:

    The volume of heavy goods vehicle traffic required for fracking is likely to increase local noise and air pollution associated with road traffic. It will also have a significant traffic impact on local roads, especially in areas where new road building is impractical or environmentally destructive.[162]

Dianne Hogarth highlighted that local roads were not built to withstand increased traffic of heavy lorries from fracking activities.[163] The Institution of Civil Engineers estimated that "a single well might require between 500 and 1,250 HGV lorry movements."[164] Greenpeace pointed to an Institute of Directors study predicting average truck movements of between 6 and 17 per day over five years[165] and European Commission research warning of up to 250 truck movements a day to a single drilling site.[166]


61. The range of environmental risks, discussed above, is extensive, and there remains uncertainty about their significance because fracking operations have yet to move beyond the exploratory stage in the UK. Such a situation requires strong safeguards in the following key areas: the regulatory regime, monitoring, liability arrangements and 'social licence', as we discuss below.


62. The Government explained to us the roles and responsibilities of departments involved in the regulation of fracking:

    DECC has the overall lead on unconventional oil and gas policy, including shale gas, and coordinates activities across Government departments. Defra has policy responsibility for the environmental aspects of shale gas policy, with the exception of climate change and seismicity issues which are a DECC lead. DCLG is responsible for the planning system including environmental impact assessment. Defra and DCLG responsibilities extend to England only, as environmental policy and the operation of respective planning systems are devolved matters.

    Operators who wish to explore for shale gas require a number of permissions:

      They must first be granted a Petroleum Exploration Development Licence by DECC which will confer exclusive rights to an area.

      They also require environmental permits from the environmental regulator, access agreement from relevant landowner(s), scrutiny from the Health and Safety Executive and DECC consent before operations can commence.

      All project activities, such as drilling, hydraulic fracturing, or production, require planning permission from a local Minerals Planning Authority or, on appeal, from the Planning Inspectorate. The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government also has powers to call-in planning applications for his own determination or, similarly, to recover planning appeals for his own determination.[167]

The Environment Agency set out additional requirements:

    For a site that is planning to undertake hydraulic fracturing, the following permits and permissions are likely to be required:

      A permit for the management of extractive waste (also known as 'mining waste') will always be required where a new well is being drilled and waste needs to be managed.

      A notice under the Water Resources Act to 'construct a boring for the purposes of searching for or extracting minerals'. The notice will set out details of the well design and construction.

      A permit for a radioactive substances activity to manage Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials from a well that is producing oil or gas.

      A permit for a groundwater activity, where there is a risk of an indirect discharge to groundwater from the proposed operations.

      A permit for an installation under the Industrial Emissions Directive, if operators intend to flare more than 10 tonnes of waste gas per day.

      A water abstraction licence if the operation abstracts more than 20 cubic metres per day directly from a river or groundwater.[168]

63. We took some assurance from Dr Tony Grayling that the Environment Agency "take the potential environmental risk from extracting shale gas extremely seriously, and indeed the public concerns there are around this agenda."[169] However, we heard much to suggest that there are uncertainties which point to unacceptable gaps, inconsistencies and inadequacies in the current regime. Joanne Hawkins told us:

    There is a well developed existing regulatory framework governing conventional oil and gas extraction. However, when applied to the extraction of unconventional oil and gas, gaps in the current regulation are apparent. These can be seen in areas relating to chemical use, waste, emissions, environmental liability, environmental assessment, water and planning. These gaps are the result of uncertainty surrounding if/how current regulations apply and from the presence of inappropriate application thresholds. … Attention needs to be drawn to the problems in the current regulatory system if the risks of fracking are to be considered in context.[170]

Lord Smith, chair of the Task Force on Shale Gas, told us:

    If you add up the range of environmental regulations that are currently in place, mostly in different European directives, you probably have a range of protections that are sufficient for the various issues that we can currently envisage. However, it is all rather diffuse across a range of different directives and it is the responsibility of a range of different public bodies to undertake the regulation. One of the key issues that we are tussling with at the moment is: does that make sense? Would it be better to have a bespoke regulatory regime that had the expertise, the knowledge and developed it, especially if we are going to see a lot of new applications coming online? At the moment you have only a few handfuls of applications and the current regime appears to be reasonably well geared up to be able to deal with that. If that were to expand dramatically, I think there are serious questions about whether it is.[171]

Concerns were also raised about the availability of sufficient regulatory resources to properly regulate fracking in the UK.[172]

64. The existing regime is complex and whilst we welcome the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive's joint working strategy, Working together to regulate unconventional oil and gas developments,[173] it remains to be seen whether this will ensure effective regulatory co-ordination across all the relevant bodies and departments. A joint strategy concerning the regulation of unconventional oil and gas signed by all relevant national and local departments and agencies must be developed and published.

65. The Government must ensure adequate numbers of skilled and experienced staff are in place to regulate unconventional oil and gas now and in the future.

66. Work to determine the baseline status of the environment, including baselines related to methane in groundwater and fugitive emissions, and subsequent monitoring requirements must be completed as soon as possible and the findings used to inform fracking permits and permissions.

67. The UK has complex geology and more effort is required to understand and map specific local geological conditions and the influence of historic mining activity.

68. We have concluded that fracking must be prohibited outright in protected and nationally important areas including National Parks, the Broads, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest and ancient woodland, and any land functionally linked to these areas.

69. Venting of methane emissions is not acceptable. Full containment of methane must be mandated in all fracking permits and permissions.

70. It is crucial that groundwater is protected and the restriction on fracking in water source protection zones 1 is welcome. However, fracking should be prohibited in all source protection zones and all fracking activity must require a groundwater permit when wells extend under aquifers. A minimum vertical separation distance between shales being fracked and a groundwater aquifer should be defined and mandated.

71. There must be clear and accessible public disclosure on the chemicals used in the exploration and production of shale gas, and the risks they potentially pose.

72. The Infrastructure Bill proposes an automatic right of access to land 300m below the surface for the purpose of exploiting petroleum or deep geothermal energy (paragraph 7). Frack Free Ryedale consider this "removes the few safeguards that we have."[174] Steve Thompsett from UK Onshore Oil and Gas thought the fracking activity "probably would go ahead" without this change to the Bill.[175] Automatic right of access to "deep-level land" is not supported by the majority of the public and is not considered necessary by the industry (paragraph 80). It should be removed from the Infrastructure Bill.

73. The changes to the regulatory system identified above, though essential, do not however address the fundamental need for a more coherent and more joined-up regulatory system, and one that needs to be put in place before further fracking activity in contemplated. First, the Strategic Environmental Assessment of the Licensing Rounds, Environmental Impact Assessments, planning and permit appraisals must all consider the cumulative impacts of fracking. UK Onshore Oil and Gas told us "the industry has committed to undertake an [Environmental Impact Assessment] (and equivalent studies) on all sites where hydraulic fracturing for shale gas/oil is proposed".[176] Second, environmental impact assessment must be mandated for all fracking activity. We share the confidence some of our academic witnesses had in the regulators' capability to build a robust and effective regulatory system to cover fracking,[177] but we have concerns about the Environment Agency's qualified assertion that "the current regulatory regime is satisfactory to enable this industry potentially to develop in a way that protects people and the environment, at least for the exploratory stage of the industry's development."[178] Third, attention must be paid to the way in which the industry and the risks might scale up. There is the prospect that a regulatory regime for operational extraction would be applied without the same rigour that had been applied to the exploration phase. It is important that the necessary regulatory arrangements are determined and in place prior to the expansion of the industry. Finally, there should be a consolidated regulatory regime specifically for fracking.


74. We welcome the Environment Agency's inclusion of mandatory conditions for baseline monitoring in the draft permits for the two sites currently pending planning permission. Mandatory baselines and continued monitoring, covering all relevant indicators, must be conducted.

75. It is unacceptable that there are no monitoring requirements for abandoned wells and this should be remedied immediately. We had misgivings about industry being in control of data-gathering in our National Pollinator Strategy inquiry, where pesticide companies were funding the continuing research on the effects of neonicotinoids on pollinators.[179] We agree with the Environment Agency that it is "essential that [commercial operators] take responsibility for their work"[180] and conduct their own monitoring "in accordance with the standards that are set in [the Environment Agency's] monitoring certification scheme,"[181] and welcome the Agency's recognition of the "the desirability of some independent monitoring at this stage of the industry's development."[182] We note the announcement this month that British Geological Survey will assist Cuadrilla in monitoring groundwater, air quality and seismicity at its Lancashire sites.[183] Monitoring by the commercial operator should be supplemented with such independent monitoring in all cases to increase public confidence in the results. The regulators must conduct regular unannounced spot checks and audits of all fracking sites, and facilitate a clear and accessible public disclosure of all monitoring data.


76. There are concerns regarding the adequacy of the liability arrangements covering fracking activity, including the continuing safety of wells that are subsequently decommissioned (paragraph 39). It is regrettable that the amendment to the Water Bill to secure a liability guarantee was rejected.[184] Minerals Authorities can ask for bonds, and should do.[185] It is imperative that commercial operators have sufficient resources and insurance to cover full liability in the event of a pollution incident. Licences, permits and permissions must not be issued if this cannot be demonstrated. We welcome the industry's efforts to develop an insurance mechanism: this must be in place in advance of any fracking activity.[186]


77. Public concern about fracking is understandable, following examples of poor environmental performance in the United States which have put the risks in sharp focus. Government action has also shown inconsistency, as Tom Burke told us:

    I think people have noticed very clearly the inconsistency in the behaviour of a Government that says, "We cannot have more onshore wind because people do not like it and it is not acceptable to the public, but we can have lots of fracking." That inconsistency of approach, again, it seems to me undermines people's confidence.[187]

Poor performance and unacceptable environmental consequences have been witnessed in the United States. Professor Paul Stevens told us:

    It is not a good idea to look at the United States' experience on these sorts of things because, largely speaking, the shale gas operations there have not been particularly well regulated. The [US] 2005 Energy Act explicitly excluded fracking from the [Environmental Protection Agency's] Clean Water Act, so an awful lot of what is being done in the United States has been done badly and done in a context of poor regulation.[188]

78. Many of our witnesses acknowledged that the existing UK conventional onshore industry has a generally safe history, with over 200 producing wells and no pollution incidents from well design,[189] although well integrity and monitoring issues at Preese Hall (paragraph 38) act to undermine this position for new fracking technology in the UK.[190]

79. Public acceptance—what Tom Burke called a 'social licence'—is critical in determining whether fracking should continue in the UK. We can envisage the development of a regulatory regime fit for the purpose of fracking but we are unable to see at this stage how the crucial 'social licence' can be established when the debate around fracking is so polarised. The openness of all involved is vital. Publishing only a redacted report on Shale Gas Rural Economy Impacts[191] has not been helpful in this regard. We asked Defra for an un-redacted version of the report during our inquiry, and this should now be published as soon as possible. The Government and industry must be transparent and make publicly available all other information relating to fracking as a matter of course.

80. The Infrastructure Bill proposal of an automatic right of access to land 300m below the surface for the purpose of extracting energy is equally unhelpful. 74% of the public are against this proposal,[192] and when the industry acknowledges that it is not necessary[193] it is difficult to see why this should remain in place. This proposed change in trespass law has serious implications for citizens' rights which could unnecessarily undermine the democratic process for objecting to development. On this issue, the public have spoken and the Government must listen.

81. Public engagement requires trusted sources of research and government policy development to fully reflect the science as well as people's concerns. Paul Mobbs believed there were failings in the three major reports the Government used to support its stance on fracking: the 2012 Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering review, 2013 Mackay and Stone review of climate impacts (paragraph 17) and 2014 Public Health England review of health impacts (paragraph 49).[194] Others criticised the Government for failing to implement all of the Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering's 2012 recommendations prior to initiating fracking activity in the UK,[195] and those bodies said that further research from the US "on the alleged and real contamination arising from fracking" published after their own report should now be considered.[196]

82. We welcome Lord Smith's Task Force on Shale Gas. Public funding for its work is preferable but we share Lord Smith's view that that is not likely.[197] The Task Force's intention is to issue a series of interim reports over an 18-month period and a final report in the early part of 2016 focusing on local impact issues, local environmental impacts, climate change impact and economic issues.[198] Lord Smith added that he thought health impacts of fracking had not been sufficiently researched[199] and we agree.

83. The Government must fully engage with the work of the Task Force on the climate change and environmental risks, and await its findings before proceeding further with fracking in the UK. We called in Part 2 for a moratorium on fracking because it cannot be accommodated within our climate change obligations. A halt is also needed on environmental grounds, and it is essential that further independent studies into the impacts of fracking in the UK are completed to help resolve the environmental risk uncertainties. It is vital that the precautionary principle is applied. Until uncertainties are fully resolved, and the required regulatory and monitoring system improvements we identify are introduced, there should also be a moratorium on the extraction of unconventional gas through fracking on environmental grounds.

64   The House of Commons Library note on Shale Gas and Fracking identified the content of fracking fluids used by Cuadrilla in the UK:

Fluids used by Cuadrilla have comprised: fresh water and sand-99.96% and polyacrylamide friction reducers-0.04%. Other potential additives include hydrochloric acid, typically at a concentration of 0.125%, or biocide at a concentration of 0.005% if required to purify the local water supply.

Shale Gas and Fracking, Standard Note SN06073, House of Commons Library, December 2014 Back

65   Environment Agency, Groundwater protection: Principles and practice (GP3), (August 2013), p 20 Back

66   Julia Desch (FRA066) Back

67   Frack Free Balcombe Resident's Association (FRA063) Back

68   UK Shale gas and the environment, Environmental Data Services, November 2013 Back

69   British Geological Survey (FRA077) Back

70   British Geological Survey (FRA077) Back

71   Qq110-11 Back

72   Safety in Fossil Fuel Alliance (FRA0060) Back

73   Water UK (FRA005) para 10 Back

74   Richard J Davies et al, "Oil and gas wells and their integrity: Implications for shale and unconventional resource exploitations," Marine and Petroleum Geology, vol 56 (2014), pp239-254 Back

75   British Geological Survey (FRA077) Back

76   Qq108-9 Back

77   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.3 Back

78   Frack Off Fife (FRA042) para 3. See also Talk Fracking (FRA019) para 2.2, Alice Waddicor (FRA053) para 3 and Dr David Lowry (FRA059) Back

79   Greenpeace UK (FRA050) para 5.23 Back

80   Water UK (FRA005) para 17 Back

81   Mobbs' Environmental Investigations (FRA051) para 16 Back

82   ReFINE (FRA007) Back

83   CIWEM (FRA006) para 9 Back

84   British Geological Survey (FRA077) Back

85   Dr David Lowry (FRA059) Back

86   Unpublished letter Back

87   OESG (FRA017). See also Friends of the Earth (FRA018) para 4, Halliburton (FRA021) para 3.4.2 Back

88   Q142 Back

89   UKOOG (FRA011) para 11 Back

90   Qq96, 104-5. See also Friends of the Earth (FRA018) para 4 Back

91   Countryside Alliance (FRA002) para 11 Back

92   Friends of the Earth (FRA018) para 4 Back

93   Caroline Raffan (FRA056) para 7 Back

94   NPL (FRA074) para 3.9 Back

95   Qq83-4,87 Back

96   Water UK (FRA005) para 30 Back

97   CIWEM (FRA006) para 10 Back

98   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.6 Back

99   For example, UK Green MEPs (FRA014) para 17 Back

100   ICE (FRA070) para 2.1 Back

101   UKOOG (FRA011) para 23 Back

102   DEFRA, DECC and DCLG (FRA068) para 3.8, 3.24 Back

103   Q112 Back

104   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.21 Back

105   Friends of the Earth (FRA018) para 18 Back

106   Water UK (FRA005) para 19 Back

107   Water UK (FRA005) para 37 Back

108   Water UK (FRA005) para 20 Back

109   ICE (FRA070) para 3.3.2 Back

110   Q115 Back

111   CIWEM (FRA006) para 10. See also Water UK (FRA005) para 36,38 Back

112   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.3 Back

113   Frack Free Balcome Resident's Association (FRA063) para 8(4) Back

114   ICE (FRA070) para 2.1 Back

115   CIWEM (FRA006) para 4 Back

116   UK Onshore Oil and Gas (FRA011) para 19 Back

117   Q106 Back

118   Water UK (FRA005) para 11 Back

119   Water UK (FRA005) para 38 Back

120   Water UK (FRA005) para 40 Back

121   Q106. See also Water UK (FRA082) Back

122   ICE (FRA070) para 2.1 Back

123   EFRA Committee, DEFRA's responsibility for fracking, HC 589, Q57 [Dr Leinster] Back

124   Public Health England, Review of the Potential Public Health Impacts of Exposure to Chemical and Radioactive Pollutants as a Result of Shale Gas Extraction. (June 2014), page iii. Back

125   Dr F P Rugman (FRA032) para 3 Back

126   Dr F P Rugman (FRA032) para 11 Back

127   UK Green MEPs (FRA014) para 21 Back

128   AEA, Support to the identification of potential risks for the environment and human health arising from hydrocarbons operations involving hydraulic fracturing in Europe. (August 2012), page viii Back

129   Philip Mitchell (FRA058) appendix 1 Back

130   Dr David Lowry (FRA059) Back

131   The Geological Society (FRA003) para 9 Back

132   No Hot Air (FRA030) para 2 Back

133   DEFRA, DECC and DCLG (FRA068) para 3.21-22 Back

134   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.28 - 29 Back

135   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.30 Back

136   Q52 Back

137   Q93 [Mark Ellis-Jones] Back

138   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.23 Back

139   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.24-25 Back

140   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 3.25 Back

141   DEFRA, DECC and DCLG (FRA068) para 4.7 Back

142   RSPB (FRA015) para 3.6 Back

143   RSPB (FRA015) para 3.10 Back

144   The Woodland Trust (FRA013) para 2,4 Back

145   The Geological Society (FRA003) para 18 Back

146   DEFRA, DECC and DCLG (FRA068) para 3.39 Back

147   Liaison Committee, Evidence from the Prime Minister, HC 887, Q52 Back

148   RSPB (FRA015) para 3.5 Back

149   RSPB (FRA015) para 1.1 Back

150   DEFRA, DECC and DCLG (FRA068) para 3.36-38 Back

151   The Geological Society (FRA003) para 12-13 Back

152   The Royal Society & Royal Academy of Engineering (FRA067) para 7 Back

153   IGas Energy (FRA027) para 27 Back

154   CPRE (Kent) (FRA012) para 3.3 Back

155   Dr James Verdon and Professor Michael Kendall (FRA022) FRA S2 Back

156   Q120 Back

157   Q123 Back

158   INEOS (FRA020) para 26 Back

159   UK Onshore Oil and Gas (FRA011) para 31 Back

160   INEOS (FRA020) para 27 Back

161   CIWEM (FRA006) para 14 Back

162   Greenpeace UK (FRA050) para 5.28 Back

163   Dianne Hogarth (FRA049) Back

164   ICE (FRA070) para 2.1 Back

165   Institute of Directors, Infrastructure for Business: Getting shale gas working (May 2013) page 16 Back

166   AEA, Support to the identification of potential risks for the environment and human health arising from hydrocarbons operations involving hydraulic fracturing in Europe (August 2012) page xi Back

167   DEFRA, DECC and DCLG (FRA068) para 1.3-4 Back

168   Environment Agency (FRA064) para 2.3 Back

169   Q42 Back

170   Joanne Hawkins (FRA008) Back

171   Q143 Back

172   Countryside Alliance (FRA002) para 26. See also Rhona MacLeod (FRA034) para 1m) Back

173   Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive, Working together to regulate unconventional oil and gas developments (November 2012) Back

174   Frack Free Rydale (FRA047) para 3.8. See also Home Owners Alliance, 74% oppose fracking without homeowners' approval, accessed 21 January 2015 Back

175   Q151. See also Q22 Back

176   UK Onshore Oil and Gas (FRA011) para 26 Back

177   Q36 Back

178   Q42 Back

179   Environmental Audit Committee, Second Report of Session 2014-15, National Pollinator Strategy, HC 213 Back

180   Q70 Back

181   Q76 Back

182   Qq70,77 Back

183   UK's first independent research to monitor fracking as it happens, BGS press release, 15 January 2015 Back

184   Public Bill Committee, Water Bill, 10 December 2013, col 222 Back

185   Q165 Back

186   Q158 Back

187   Q7 Back

188   Q1 Back

189   Q100 Back

190   Qq102-5 Back

191   Rural Community Policy Unit, Shale gas rural economy impacts, March 2014 Back

192   Home Owners Alliance, 74% oppose fracking without homeowners' approval, accessed 21 January 2015 Back

193   Q151 ( See also Q22) Back

194   Mobbs' Environmental Investigations (FRA051) para 30-40 Back

195   Frack Free Balcombe Resident's Association (FRA063) Back

196   Royal Society and Royal Academy of Engineering (FRA067) para 8 Back

197   Q171 Back

198   Q124 Back

199   Q142 Back

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2015
Prepared 26 January 2015